Saturday, January 24, 2009

Prayers for Lehane

As Britain gears up for a rare visit by author Dennis Lehane, timed with the release of The Given Day on this side of the Atlantic, we’ve already highlighted a Telegraph interview with the author; now, The Guardian comes forth with its own insightful Lehane feature, written by Emma Brockes. It’s a fine piece of work, recounting Lehane’s change of direction from crime-fiction-writing to less genre-style work, his upbringing in blue-collar Boston, and his efforts on behalf of the HBO series The Wire. I guess the extraordinary press attention Lehane is receiving as he prepares to visit the UK makes up somewhat for The Guardian’s bizarre failure to include his work in its “1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read” feature earlier this month.

Lehane proves to be very candid with Brockes:
We are in St Petersburg, Florida, where Lehane lives when he’s not in Boston. His wife is an ophthalmologist here, and he teaches creative writing at Eckerd College. He rents an office in a part of town where the rent is cheap and the views overlook a noir-ish vista of derelict lots and blowsy palms, all the way down to the ocean.

Officially, Lehane’s books are noir, although their success has blurred the boundaries, and with The Given Day he has moved into what he would caustically refer to as literary fiction. He has written three episodes of the TV series The Wire (in seasons three, four and five), and is currently developing a TV show about Boston in the 1970s. On the wall of his office is a photo of him talking earnestly to Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of the latest film adaptation of one of his novels, Shutter Island. For nine years, Lehane built up a fan base in modest increments. Now he can barely write a shopping list without Hollywood optioning it.

Having been poor for a long time, when the money started rolling in he explicitly warned himself: “You could become a real dick.” The greatest thing about having money, he says, is the removal of the worry about not having it. “And that’s huge. As anyone who’s ever stared at the ringing phone thinking that’s a debt collector or had that horror of thinking will my lights go on, will know. All of which I’ve been through. Suddenly that was gone.”

He wrote his first novel in three weeks while he was a student and slung it in a drawer. It was a crime novel, and he knew that if he published it he risked being hemmed in as a “genre” writer. But literary fiction at the time seemed desperately boring, full of “middle-class, well-appointed couples suffering from malaise”. He says: “Don’t get me wrong, I love literary fiction. It’s faux literary fiction I can’t stand.”

He had learned a certain stubborn self-belief at writing school. Lehane himself went to Eckerd, attracted after his freezing Boston childhood by the Florida sun and the fact that Raymond Carver went there. He had already dropped out of two other degree courses and finally stopped pretending he wanted to be anything else; he had been writing short stories since he was eight. The brutal workshop rite of students critiquing each others’ work toughened him up and also, he says, gave him perspective. “It’s good not only to realise that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but that you don’t want to. There’s a certain type of reader that you don’t ever want to write for. And that really helps. I impressed a moron, why should I care? Or I pissed off a moron, why should it bother me?”
You can read the full Guardian piece here.

As you can probably tell, I’m rather excited to see Lehane next month, when he’s in London with his fellow Transworld author Tess Gerritsen. I hope to have more time with him on this occasion than I did during our brief chat during Bouchercon in Baltimore last fall. I also hope he has plenty of ink in his pens, because I have a number of copies of Shutter Island that I would dearly like him to sign.


Dana King said...

I finished reading THE GIVEN DAY a couple of nights ago. A wonderful book. I'm glad I wasn't asked to review it; I don't feel I'm a good enough writer to do it justice.

Jen Jordan said...

Are you going to have him go through the life scale recreation of Shutter Island you had built on that deserted island you bought with your retirement fund?